Four years after being forced to leave Kosova (1999), Serbian politicians have stepped up what Kosovar prime minister Bajram Rexhipi calls "diplomatic attacks on Kosova". As on many occasions in Serbia’s recent history, Serbian politicians appear to be competing in their use of nationalist rhetoric against non-Serb neighbours in order to rally support (presidential elections are due next year) and to divert atttention from domestic issues.
The Serbian attacks culminated in a fierce speech by Serbia’s deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, who is also Belgrade’s spokesman on Kosova, at a special UN security council session on Kosova on August 18. Covic accused the international community of failing to improve the security situation in Kosova and of fostering ‘fascism’ in what Serbia still regards as its own province.
He also accused the civilian Kosova Protection Corps (TMK) of involvement in a number of unspecified and unexplained violent incidents in the region, and said that it should be disbanded. He also stressed that "Albanian extremist and terrorist groups represent the main threat to the stabilization of the province and the region as a whole", and appealed for closer cooperation between security forces in the region.
The same day, Serbian prime minister Zoran Zivkovic, a rival of Covic’s within Serbia’s ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition, said in Belgrade that "Albanian extremists want war and are afraid because of the recent favourable policy changes toward Serbia on the part of the international community, especially New York, Washington and Brussels."
On the same day that Covic and Zivkovic were accusing Kosovars of violence, however, UNMIK, the UN civilian administration in Kosova, announced that two incidents had taken place within the previous 24 hours involving attacks by Serbs on cars driven by Albanians. The following day, a UN police spokesman announced that a Serb had been arrested for the killing of a UN police officer on August 3.
The inflammatory statements of Covic and Zivkovic are the latest in a pattern of increasing rhetoric and political pressure on the Kosova issue, which appear to be designed both to increase tension and violence in the region before the elections, and to put pressure on the international community institutions currently ruling Kosova.
On August 12 the Serbian cabinet approved a draft document stressing that Kosova is an "inseparable" part of Serbia, and accusing UNMIK of failing to restore a multi-ethnic society. It calls for the punishment of Kosovars guilty of war crimes against Serbs, protection for Serbian historical monuments, and Kosova’s restoration to Serbian control as an autonomous province, with similar status to Vojvodina. The document has been sent to parliament for debate and a vote after the summer recess.
The document was published one day before Harri Holkeri, a Finn, took over as head of UNMIK and made his first visit to Kosova. Observers also see it as an attempt by DOS to whip up support and divert attention from Serbia’s widespread poverty, corruption and organised crime. DOS, traditionally seen as a moderate and reforming party, has been under severe attack on these grounds from G-17 Plus, the party of Miroljub Labus and Mladan Dinkic, and appears to be moving to the right to attract nationalist votes to counter them.
Several of DOS’s main political rivals are also playing the nationalist card to attract support for their opposition politics, including the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), led by former Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, who has always been vocal on nationalist issues, particularly Kosova. There is also a core of 10 percent of the electorate who remain loyal to the ultra-nationalist policies of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who rose to power in the 1980s by exploiting the Kosova issue.
Now, as then, it is not only politicians who are raising nationalist ire over Kosova. Earlier this year, the Serbian Orthodox Church published a ‘Memorandum’ reasserting the view that Kosova is the "Jerusalem of the Serbian Nation." The Serbian Orthodox Church played a prominent role in cultivating the historical myths of Serbian nationalism in the nineteenth century, and was instrumental in legitimising Milosevic’s rise to power and Serbia’s subsequent genocidal wars against the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosova.
Serbian politicians are also using Bosnia as a target for raising nationalist emotions. Justice minister Vladan Batic demanded on August 12 that Bosnia drop its lawsuit at the International Court of Justice that accuses Serbia of genocide, saying that his government has voluminous evidence of Bosnian genocide against Serbs during 1992-95.
Serbia has also demanded that Croatia drop its genocide lawsuit, in return for Serbia dropping its suit against NATO members for their attack on Kosova (1999). Bosnian Muslim leader Suleiman Tihic immediately rejected Batic’s demand, saying that Bosnia would never make political deals involving issues in which justice is at stake.
Kosovar leaders have also been dismissive of the noises coming out of Belgrade. Nexhat Daci, speaker of Kosova’s parliament, said that Kosova’s future depends not on Belgrade but on the wishes of the people living in the province. Kosova’s senior political figures, president Ibrahim Rugova, prime minister Rexhapi and speaker Daci, issued a joint statement stressing that Kosovars want "independence and sovereignty". But they must know that, if Serbian politicians carry on raising nationalist feelings, the consequences may not be so easy to shrug off.